Dr. Harry C. Steinmetz was a professor of Psychology at San Diego State College from 1930 until 1954. His career was subject to controversy, as he was dismissed from his teaching position on grounds of insubordination and subversion stemming from allegations of Communist affiliation. California law was significantly altered for the purpose of expediting his dismissal.
A Seattle native, Steinmetz received his bachelor's degree in Psychology from Purdue University, his masters from the University of Maryland, and his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He began teaching at San Diego State College in 1930, serving as an associate professor of Psychology, and sat as chairman of the department for several years.
Though it was well known that Steinmetz held liberal political views, he became more conspicuous once faculty members became aware of his political involvement outside of campus. In 1935, Steinmetz unsuccessfully ran for mayor on a Socialistic platform and held high offices in local labor organizations. His position as an educator caused some to become suspicious of him in the conservative political climate after WWII. The first formal action taken against Steinmetz came from San Diego County Posts of the American Legion and the Disabled American Veterans Association. His influential position at the University gave these organizations reason to believe that he could coerce impressionable students into adopting Communist values.
San Diego's post-war conservativism and strong ties to the military influenced the public's willingness to embrace an intolerance of non-conformity. Though Steinmetz was unthreatened by legal action at this point, local newspapers and media portrayed the professor in a suspicious light, associating him with Communist organizations and institutions. This attention was eventually enforced by legislative action made by state Senator Fred H. Kraft of San Diego. The senator was once a part of the California Legislature's Investigating Committee on Un-American Activities, and he created a bill that would have provided for the "dismissal of employees of state colleges" by expanding "unprofessional conduct" to include "persistent active participation in public meetings conducted or sponsored by a communist front organization," and "willful advocacy of communism, either on or off campus." Further, it allowed dismissal proceedings to be initiated by anybody who wished to file a complaint. This proposal was vetoed by Governor Earl Warren, yet the anti-Communist sentiment permeating the country set the stage for further legal action against the professor.
On March 26, 1953, Steinmetz received a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Congressman Harold Velde, and was required to appear before the committee. As Steinmetz once held a position with the American Federation of Teachers, he was questioned as to whether or not there had been any Communist infiltration of the organization. As the professor wished to protect himself from self-incrimination, he invoked the Fifth Amendment, creating an even greater air of suspicion surrounding his involvement with the Communist party.
Breaking what had been several months of silence, Steinmetz gave a vehement speech before 300 students, speaking out against the methods and purpose of the questioning committee. The speech was met with rancorous reactions from several prominent community members, many of which called for San Diego State College to dismiss the professor. Finally, on February 5, 1954, Steinmetz was fired from San Diego State College. He spent two years in appeals, where his lawyers challenged the constitutionality of the Luckel Act, which incorporated many of Senator Kraft's early proposals. The courts contended that although Steinmetz may have not been a threat to national security, he was definitely guilty in terms of his subversion of students. It was not until 1968 that the Luckel Act was ruled as unconstitutional, when it was too late for the professor.
Steinmetz spent the rest of his working career "hiding out," though he did continue to be active in left-wing causes. He practiced psychology in San Diego and Los Angeles, and lived in Europe, Canada, Michigan, and Georgia. He returned to SDSC in the late 60's, eventually receiving the title of Professor Emeritus. Steinmetz died on February 15, 1982 at the age of 82.
According to SDSU Professor of History Raymond Starr, “In the 1950s, the witch hunting of the McCarthy era came to San Diego State with the firing of tenured professor Harry Steinmetz. The firing is still the most serious blot on San Diego State’s record as an academic institution.”
1980 interview with Harry Steinmetz, SDSU Professor Emeritus of Psychology, 1930-1954.
Download the PDF transcript.
In this interview totalling approximately 56 minutes, Steinmetz discusses when and how he first became interested in politics and ran for different political offices starting in fall of 1935. He also talks about when he first started teaching at SDSU and his fellow colleagues. He discusses the legislation that was passed just to get him dismissed, and how the ACLU botched his case by emphasizing his First Amendment rights instead of his property rights being violated. Steinmetz also discusses his teaching activity in Canada and elsewhere after he was blacklisted, his experience testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1953 and 1955, and his attitude toward San Diego State as of the interview (which was conducted less than 2 years before he died).
Interviewed by Bud McKanna on 10/2/1980. (Note: Special Collections also houses the Harry Steinmetz Papers.)
Image credit: Professor Harry Steinmetz in 1946, Del Sudoeste yearbook.
1981 interview with SDSU Professor of Philosophy Dr. Harry Ruja discussing the Steinmetz case.
Professor Harry Ruja on Harry Steinmetz:
Dr. Ruja was one of Steinmetz's stronger supporters. In this 18 minute interview with Paul Eisloeffel on 10/26/1981, he discusses the attitudes towards Steinmetz from his colleagues, students, and the public. Ruja explains why he felt confident that Steinmetz was not guilty of subversion, and also reflects on Steinmetz's performance as a professor.
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